Shaney Irene

On Faith, Life, and Being the Church

My Personal Struggle with the Bible and Its Interpretation

6 Comments

Y’all have seen Freaky Friday, right (either version works)?

I used to think that writing the Bible was sort of like that. I imagined the Spirit came and supernaturally controlled the bodies of the men as they wrote. I didn’t know whether the men were aware of this or not, but I figured that’s how it happened. After all, “God wrote the Bible.”

Some of you may be laughing, knowing that “inspired” doesn’t mean that God exercised that kind of control over the writing of the Bible. He worked through the writers, He didn’t control them in a way that took their own point of view and creativity out of the equation.

But really, growing up hearing words like inerrancy and verbal, plenary inspiration from the time I was young, what was I supposed to think? Especially when so many people interpreted the Bible like that’s exactly what happened.

****************************************************************************************************

The BibleToday, Trillia Newbell published a review of Rachel Held Evan‘s upcoming book A Year of Biblical WomanhoodThose of you who follow my Facebook feed probably already know that I admire Evans, and thus, am already predisposed to be frustrated with Newbell’s review. But I promise, this isn’t about Evans and Newbell. This post is about my struggles with the Bible and its interpretation.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been re-thinking a lot of things that I grew up assuming. I’ve been pretty vocal about some of these changes, but others I’ve kept pretty quiet. Possibly the change that I’ve struggled with the most is the change in how I’ve viewed the Bible.

Now, I still think the Bible is inerrant, and even infallible. But by that, I mean I believe that the Bible makes no false claims, and that it holds all we need to know to be saved and follow Jesus (I don’t believe it holds all the specifics. After all, we walk by faith, not by sight)  I don’t always agree with how these ideas are applied to the actual study and interpretation of the Bible.

For example, Newbell says in her review:  “I believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, written by men, inspired by God, infallible in all that it teaches, sufficient for all of life and doctrine, and the very words of God, words from God. And this new book from Evans is a recent example of how this essential truth is lost.”

While I agree that the Bible was written by men and inspired by God, I can’t affirm the idea that all the words in the Bible are “the very words of God.” And I do not believe that everything laid forth by Newbell is “essential” truth (neither the Bible nor the creeds say anything about inerrancy.)

If all the words in the Bible are the very words of God, then what do we do when Paul says it’s him, not the Lord, who’s saying something (1 Corinthians 7:12)? Or what do we do with Psalm 137:9, which says Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!?

Those who agree with Newbell probably have answers ready for those verses. Answers that explain that, “Well, within context, this means…” or “This wasn’t meant to be prescriptive,” or some other answer that requires interpretation, rather than taking those words at their literal, face value.

So how come when someone like Evans explores alternative explanations for passages such as Ephesians 5, taking culture, genre, and historical context into account, she is accused of questioning the Bible’s validity?

The more I have read and explored different views of the Bible, the more evidence seems to pile up that a belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scripture comes with a predetermined set of beliefs. At the very least, it seems to be assumed that if you affirm the beliefs of biblical inerrancy and infallibility, you also affirm that these beliefs are just as essential to the gospel as the deity of Christ or the virgin birth.

****************************************************************************************************

I’m usually not afraid to voice my opinions. But when it comes to my changing views on the Bible, I’ve found myself very scared to do so. I genuinely worry that if I post something related to how I view the Bible, someone will think that I’ve rejected the Bible altogether. In case you think I’m overreacting, this post caused one parent from my church to call another one, asking if they had heard that I had rejected Christianity. So I think I’m somewhat justified in my paranoia.

But I’m tired of living in fear.

I believe, like Evans, that [t]he Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity.

I don’t always agree with the traditional, conservative beliefs on what in the Bible is correct scientifically, what is prescriptive, and what is a direct word from God, rather than a word from man that God determined was important to preserve.

I don’t think that 1 Timothy 5:8 is talking about whether or not men are permitted to be stay-at-home dads.

I don’t think 1 Timothy 2:12 means that women can’t teach men, ever.

And I don’t think that Genesis 1 necessarily teaches that the earth was created in six literal days.

Sometimes, I think that a passage is meant to be interpreted poetically, not literally. Sometimes, I think the men who wrote the Bible were simply describing things the way they understood it at the time. Sometimes, I think commands were for a certain people in a certain context, and don’t automatically apply to us.

Please don’t say I don’t take the Bible seriously. I believe it to be inspired by God, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. I believe it to be sacred. I believe it to be the most important book I could ever read. I believe it to be living, and active, and sharper than a double-edged sword. I believe that God is present within its pages, and that He uses it to transform lives.

Like Rachel Held Evans, I love the Bible.

And I don’t want to be afraid anymore.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “My Personal Struggle with the Bible and Its Interpretation

  1. That is beautiful. I would not pretend to know nearly as much about the Bible as you, but it sounds to me like you take it very seriously. I think your way really makes sense and I think it takes a lot of guts to be open about changing your mind about something like this. Go you 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Trisha! I think there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have the guts to explore my faith like this if I didn’t know people like you who show grace in everyday life. 🙂

  2. I quite agree with you on two points. 1) the inerrancy of scripture does not tell you what it actually says and 2) inerrancy isn’t essential.

    That said, what seems to worry Newbell–at least what she presents as her worry–is worth worrying about. To say “the question . . . is not, will we pick and choose? But rather how will we pick and choose?” is to seriously misstate or seriously get the bible wrong. It’s a serious misstatement if by “pick and choose” she means “give unequal weight to different passages” or “give to some passages less than natural interpretations in order to save the natural interpretation of other passages.” That’s not picking and choosing, that’s interpreting and it’s not all that different from what’s done in science, law or Homer studies. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to mean this: “there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? But what am I looking for?” It seems like she means that we get to choose what parts of the bible we’re theologically accountable to, and the rest we can mentally retcon away.

    But this latter doctrine does get something essential wrong. It flips our relation to scripture on its head: scripture is no longer something that we humbly submit to–accepting that we may not understand it all, and that some of it may even strike us as wrong or odd–now it’s something that we have the right to censure.

    That we must humbly submit to the text is essential not in the way that, say, the trinity is (i.e., the believer who does not endorse it is not a Christian). Rather it underlies all the essential doctrines: because without it, we have no reason to accept them (excluding notably the resurrection, which we do have reason to accept. Reason which gives us reason to accept scripture). The faith isn’t incomplete without it, it’s just unmotivated.

    So to bring all these platitudes home, there’s a big gap between taking things “poetically, not literally,” and asking of the text “What am I looking for.” (If Evans has been accused of attacking the bible’s validity, well that’s a good line for the prosecution to start with.) But the gap is often overlooked: letting the bible be profitable for doctrine, for reproof, and for correction, doesn’t mean that Genesis 1 is literal, but it’s not meaning that doesn’t mean that we get to pick and choose either.

    tl;dr:
    1) inerrancy≠essential
    2) inerrancy≠a particular interpretation
    3) (1&2)≠we get to pick and choose
    ^That’s really important.

    **Disclaimers for terrible internet-people**: What I’ve said doesn’t give us a set interpretation either. Both “conservatives” and “liberals” (can I get some scary quotes for this? i really hate those terms) can censure the bible to make it easier to accept (“but why would there be all this death before the fall?”) or to fit with what they’ve always been taught.

    Also, I don’t really give a [blog appropriate noun] about either Evans or wider gender roles debate. I will add that, Evans’s quoted comments may well be more mundane in context than they appear outside of context.

    • Hi Ray, thanks for commenting! While I, of course, am not Rachel, I have been reading her blog for over a year now, and have read her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town,” so hopefully I can provide a little context for those comments that concern you.

      When Rachel started questioning some of the beliefs she grew up with, such as gender roles, biblical inerrancy, etc., many people accused her of “picking and choosing” what she wanted to believe and what she didn’t. Rather than trying to counteract those accusations by saying, “But I’m not picking and choosing!”, she instead chose to explain why she thought what she did. Rather than focusing just on what the Bible says, she chose to ask the question, “Why do we interpret the Bible the way we do?”

      So by “picking and choosing,” Rachel isn’t saying that we determine some parts of the Bible to be more important than others. Rather, she means that we all have our methods of interpreting Scripture, our different hermeneutics, and than instead of trying to deny that we interpret the Bible (many who accuse her of “picking and choosing” also claim that they just take the Bible at face value), we should ask ourselves why we interpret the Bible the way we do. Her basic “thesis,” if you will, is that we can have more fruitful and grace-filled discussions if we all come to the table understanding that none of us takes the Bible 100% at face value, and were willing to discuss why we interpret the way we do, instead of claiming that everyone else is interpreting but we are not.

      Perhaps “picking and choosing” is not the best terminology, but I think she’s using it because it’s what’s been used against her so many times.

      As for the lines about asking “What am I looking for,” I think what Rachel is trying to point out that we all come to the Bible with our own biases. We can never read the Bible from a completely, 100% unbiased perspective. By asking ourselves what biases we are bringing to the text, we position ourselves in a better light to understand why we react to the text the way we do, why we interpret the text the way we do, and what weaknesses we bring to the text

      Newbell took a lot of things Rachel said out of context, and was looking at those particular quotes through the lens of “The Bible is completely inerrant and should always be taken at face value as the authoritative word of God that applies to all people throughout all time.” Through that lens, I can see how one would think Rachel is questioning the validity of the Bible. But that’s not at all what Rachel is doing. She’s trying to have a conversation about why some passages in the Bible should be interpreted literally, others poetically, why some commands are considered cultural and unbinding on us, and others are considered binding upon all people at all time, why some parts of Scripture can be read as an accurate historical recording, and others may be seen as allegories that may or may not have actually happened.

      So, while I think your concerns are valid based on Newbell’s review, I also think that, when put in context, the comments are much more benign than they seem at first glance.

  3. That you struggle with this in an honest and straightforward manner is enough for me. That you care so strongly for seeking out the truth is itself very significant, and separates you from the rest. This is especially true in an age when some theologians would want to argue that truth has become relative—if not in substance, then certainly in effect.

    • Thanks, ACHSDP. 🙂 That’s been one of my biggest concerns. I don’t believe that truth is relative, though some truths might have different applications for different people. And being able to ask questions about “traditional” interpretations of the Bible, while not being seen as questioning the truth value of the Bible itself, is not an easy task. I hope you’ll stick around, I’m sure I’ll be writing more as I ask more questions, and I’d love to hear your feedback!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s